This blog posting is dedicated to Sally, who asked last week, “After talking with everyone I really want to import wine from Europe… how do I get started?

To all the Sallys out there… this is why I recommended that you first begin working with someone who knows the ropes; because after a trip like this, you’ve still got to hit the streets running when you return.

Because this story is about Portugal, let’s start with their world history. Without this background, an importer can’t even begin to sell the wine from any given region. Much of selling wine is selling the romance behind it… the history, the people, their culture, their strengths and their opportunities.

The Age of Discovery, from the 15th to the 17 Centuries, put Portugal into our world history books as a pinnacle expression; extending, not marking the beginning of globalization. Martin Page has written an amazing book called, “The First Global Village ~ How Portugal Changed the World.”

From GoLisbon:

“The beginning of Portugal’s pioneering role in world exploration may be traced back to as far as 1279, when King Diniz set out to improve Portugal’s emerging navy. He invited a Genoese sea captain to Portugal and placed him in charge of developing the mercantile and naval fleets. He also ordered the Atlantic coastline planted with trees to provide timber for the ocean-going fleets he envisioned in Portugal’s future. In 1341, a fleet of three vessels sailed from Lisbon and explored the Canary Islands, off the northwestern coast of Africa. Although the expedition showed no profit and Castile later gained control of the islands, this voyage was the first official exploring expedition by a European state. Portuguese captains soon became the best in Europe, sailing the most maneuverable ships and applying the latest innovations in the fields of navigation and cartography.”

All of these travels, which includes the travels of Vasco da Gama (expedition around Africa to India), Pedro Alvares Cabral (Brazil), and the Portuguese accidentally arriving in Japan in 1543, has created a country known to this day as the Land of Discovery. Within its borders, I have found my own explorer… Delfim Costa.

Delfim and I first met during the 2008 American Wine Bloggers Conference, when I offered him a ride from the BBQ back to the hotel… He was the hitchhiker, I was the driver; although, I offered the ride as a matter of courtesy. He would have waited (an half hour) for the next bus. I knew how long it would take for the bus to return; he didn’t.

During the ride, I talked about the days when I was hitchhiking, and some of my merry and scary adventures. My spirit of adventure and his just clicked, and we’ve been connected ever since. He continues to supply me with books that teach me of his marvelous Portugal. I continue to explore the ever opening lotus-land known as Portugal, and continue to reflect on the fact that I spent the formative years of my life living on Lisbon Street, not knowing that someday I would be walking on the streets of Lisbon.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that in the past couple of years, I’ve written many stories about Portugal, and the search for an importer. Recently, Delfim found his dream person, Adele Tolli-Capela of Value Vines. While Adele is Italian, her husband in Portuguese. Her husband has family in Portugal, and they travel there with frequency. For Adele, it isn’t about learning Portuguese culture or its wines. It’s about exploring specific brands, gathering those wines, and then bringing them to the new world, while I continue to chronicle the explorations.

Adele took a recent trip to Portugal with her colleagues Carl Camasta and Tony Verdoni, to specifically experience Delfim’s world of wine… the one I’ve already explored and love. The following is a bird’s eye view into the world of wine importers: how they learn about a brand, and choose to bring it back to the new world as a treasure for the rest of us adventurous souls.

[Q]  Tell me about how your trip began.

[Adele]  On September 1, Carl and Tony flew  to Lisbon Portugal, where they were met by Delfim Costa, executive director of Enoforum Wines. The following three days were spent in and around the Lisbon area (Sintra, Cascais, Guincho, Obidos, and Fatima), acquainting Carl and Tony with Portuguese culture and tradition. I joined the group on Saturday, September 4.

[Q]  When did you head to the Alentejo region, where Enoforum is headquartered?

[A]  On Sunday… We traveled to Borba, where we were met by Enoforum’s master winemaker José Fonseca and Borba’s winemaker Óscar Gato. We were given an extensive tour of Adega Coop de Borba; Borba is the second largest shareholder in the Enoforum group. It processes a huge selection of grape varieties – sometimes up to 25 different ones at a given time. Borba was started 54 years ago.

[Q]  Can you share the co-op aspects of Adega Coop de Borba?

[A]  There are approximately 300 farmers who currently sell their grapes to the cooperative, and roughly 2,200 hectares planted. Both white and red wine grapes are processed at Borba, including Alvarinho, Antao Vaz, Arinto and Roupeiro; but, for the most part, the grapes are mostly Alentejo reds, including Aragonez (Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Castelao and Alicante Bouschet.

[1 hectare = 2.45 acres x 2,200 hectares = 5,390 acres]

[Q]  How about Touriga Nacional?

[A]  A small amount of Touriga National is also grown, but Aragonez accounts for almost 500 hectares and is the single most popular variety.

[Q]  How about the winery. This is old world country, how modern have they become?

[A]  Very… Borba produces approximately 11 million liters of wine a year; and, as we toured the winery, we were impressed by the cleanliness and orderliness of the operation. This was even as our visit coincided with harvest, when it’s a wineries busiest time of the year. We saw huge stainless steel vats, and smaller open-top vats used for fermentation. We were able to witness the must being filtered, and tasted tank samples of half-fermented juice.

[Q]  Why do many of the regions in the Alentejo have co-op?

[A]  It was explained to us that cooperatives are now more important to wine production in Portugal than in the past. In fact co-op’s account for 55 to 60 percent of production. There are strict rules that the co-op farmers must follow; and in return, they receive technical support for their vineyards. Growers must adhere to seven parameters of quality control, and the farmers must follow a tough discipline to remain members of the co-op.

[Q]  What is that discipline?

[A]  When the farmers bring their grapes to the co-op, there’s an initial three minute invasive analysis to determine the sugar/acid levels of each truckload. Grapes are tagged and can be identified prior to redistribution and blending.

[Q]  What about their barrel program and their bottling line? Is it all also modern?

[A]  We were able to see the bottling line, which processes 18,000 bottles an hour. We also saw a variety of oak barriques from America, France, Romania and Portugal. Borba also uses some small Chestnut barrels which give a distinctive chocolate taste to the wine.

[Q]  And their vineyards….

[A]  We left the winery and went to visit a vineyard in the area; Borba is located in the northern part of the Alentejo and the soil is limestone rich. We looked at Trincadeira grapes on the vine, and were told of the use of disease resistant root stocks, grafting, and clonal selection.

Once a blog story hits 1,000 words, I begin to get antsy for anyone reading it. I know how busy we all are. I also know that 10 days in Portugal can’t be reduced to 1,000 words or less, so this will continue tomorrow.

As this is dedicated to anyone considering importing as a vocation, I want to tell this whole story, not in a chopped up way, but – rather – with all the important details, so amanhã, meus amigos…. Part II

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